Difficult conversations are an unavoidable part of life for all of us. Sure, you can put off having a difficult conversation for days, weeks, months and even years, but make no mistake, the longer you ignore the issue, the bigger it will become and you’ll be forced to address your problems at hand one way or another!
In everyday life, these difficult conversations are usually with the people closest to us such as friends and family. In this context, we fear that a difficult conversation may cost us the relationship, or cause some irreparable damage. However, as many of us have no doubt experienced, to put off the conversation can often have more dire long-term consequences to the relationship.
The reality is that as a business owner, you’ll be faced with difficult conversations more than often than you’d like! These conversations can be with underperforming staff members, over-charging suppliers, and late contractors and even on the odd occasion, an unhappy customer! Just like in your personal life, ignoring issues and putting off difficult conversations in your business life won’t make the problem go away – if anything, it will usually exacerbate it. The difference is that in your business life delaying the conversation can cost you money, and the longer you delay it, the more money it can cost your business.
Sounds easy enough doesn’t it? But as we all know, it can be much harder in real life. No one likes confrontation in the work place, and no business owner wants to be perceived as the ‘bad guy’, so here are some tips for effectively handling those difficult conversations in your business.
1. Do your homework
Before you even think about beginning the conversation you need to identify what exactly the behavior is that your unhappy with or what the issue is that needs addressing. Ask yourself how is this behavior/issue negatively affecting the business? Have clear and concise answers to these questions, as they are what you will be explaining to the person your speaking with.
2. Know how to begin.
Some people put off having the conversation because they don’t know how to start. The best way to start is with a direct approach. For example, ‘Fiona, I would like to talk with you about what happened at the meeting this morning when the missed deadline was brought up. Let’s grab a cup of coffee tomorrow morning to chat.’ Or: ‘Simon, I want to go over some of the issues with the XYZ Account and some concerns that I have. Let’s meet tomorrow morning to problem-solve.’
Being upfront is the authentic and respectful approach. You don’t want to ambush people by surprising them about the nature of the “chat.” Make sure your tone of voice signals discussion and not inquisition, exploration and not punishment.
3. Consider where you’re having the conversation.
If the difficult conversation is with a staff member, it may seem more convenient to have the discussion in your office but this isn’t the most conducive space as it may intimidate your staff member too much. If your goal is to truly problem solve, then choose a power neutral location such as a café. If the difficult conversation is with a supplier or contractor that you’re unhappy with, you may need to consider the above advice in reverse – don’t go to their offices as the power then shifts to them. Again, try to have the conversation either in your office or in a neutral location.
4. Give bad news upfront.
It’s best to give bad news first, don’t start by complimenting them on some unrelated matter as this will only shift focus in the wrong direction and cause confusion. It’s unfair to the person you are speaking with. Stick to the point!
5. Develop a script, plan for questions.
For many of us, the very idea of a difficult conversation makes us sweat with anxiety. If this is you, it is a good idea to develop a rough script of what you are going to say, and also plan for anticipated questions or reactions (it goes without saying that you can’t plan the entire conversation and you need to respond to what’s being said to you!) but having a loose plan can be a great help.
6. Know your objective.
In business, the point of having a difficult conversation isn’t just to ‘get it off your chest’ – there has to be a justification. Ask yourself, what do you want to accomplish with this conversation? What outcome do you want? For example, do you want to change the behavior of a staff member? If so, you need a clear ‘next step’ to help them get from where they are to where you want them to be. Are you unhappy with the work of a contractor or supplier? You need to know what steps you want them to take to rectify the problem. It’s not productive to just say ‘waa waa I’m unhappy’ – remember you are the business owner, you need to be the problem solver.
7. It’s not a blame-game.
This is a self explanatory and sounds pretty straight forward, but don’t underestimate 1) how crucial it is not to play the blame game and 2) how difficult it is to avoid playing the blame game when having a difficult conversation! It seems to be human nature to want to lay blame when something goes wrong, but as a business owner your objective is not to point fingers at who is right or wrong, but rather to fix the problem and move forward in a way that best benefits the business.
8. Control emotions but still acknowledge them.
You often hear that emotions need to be left at the door in the workplace, which is ridiculous unless you work with robots! A difficult conversation by its very nature will stir up strong emotional reactions. As the business owner, you need to control your anger and frustration- your goal is not to vent! And nothing constructive can be built after a screaming session! But this is not to say you check all your emotions at the door. You are dealing with people and you need to have empathy and understanding.
9. Let there be silence.
Let people digest what you’ve said, give them time to think and respond. Don’t feel the need to fill silent pauses with small talk.
10. Let them feel what they’re feeling.
Following on from point 5, if the person starts crying, acknowledge it, don’t ignore it. If they get angry, acknowledge how they are feeling, don’t try and brush over it. You can acknowledge their feelings in a professional way by saying something along the lines of ‘I know how you’re feeling and I want to work together so it doesn’t happen moving forward’ (something that diffuses the situation). Remember that everyone has their own version of events and it’s important for them to feel that they are being heard. And finally…
11. Draw on your purpose and stay confident!
Try and remind yourself that conflict is a natural part of human interaction, don’t try and avoid it, as you will just cause yourself greater anxiety. Remember that your goal and purpose in having a difficult conversation is not to intentionally ‘hurt’ or blame anyone, it is to solve a problem and come up with the best outcome possible for everyone. Draw confidence from this purpose. You are the business owner.
As I’ve already mentioned, handling the difficult conversation required is a learned skill and above all, requires empathy, but ultimately, it also requires the courage to go ahead and do it. The more you get into the habit of facing these issues squarely, the more adept you will become at it.